Widely applauded when it was published last year, Pearl Abraham's debut novel The Romance Reader possesses that quality that distinguishes all great fiction—a fresh look at the universal truths that bind us together. Like Chaim Potok, who revealed the Orthodox Jewish world from a young man's perspective in The Chosen, Abraham explores new ground, offering readers a tender story of a young Hasidic woman facing the challenges of growing up and the demands of her religion.
Rachel Benjamin is the daughter of a quixotic rabbi who dreams of building a synagogue in the secluded upstate New York bungalow colony where his family now lives. As the rabbi's eldest daughter, Rachel is expected to set an example for her five siblings and for the other girls in the community: she must wear thick opaque tights with seams; she is forbidden to wear a bathing suit in public; and she can never read books in English. But like all young adults, Rachel bristles at the stringent rules set by her family and her religion, rebelling in ways that become increasingly apparent. Whether sneaking sheer nylons in and out of the house or applying for an illicit library card that will allow her access to the romance novels that she loves, Rachel is determined to do things her way. Dreaming of a life that mirrors that of the heroines in her favorite novels, Rachel craves the independence she will never have as a Hasidic woman in an arranged marriage. And yet, as her impending marriage draws inevitably nearer, the pulls of family and faith weigh against the frightening and unknown world beyond her own.
This coming-of-age tale is both unusual and familiar—an intriguing, heartfelt look at the power of family and religion in the Hasidic community and the universal desire to leave the nest.
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Pearl Abraham is the author of the novels The Romance Reader and Giving Up America, and the editor of the Dutch anthology Een Sterke Vrouw: Jewish Heroines in Literature. Her work has appeared in Brooklyn Noir, The Michigan Quarterly, Religion in America, Dog Culture: Writers on the Character of Canines, and Forward.
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